<
>

No pressure: Steelers' shockingly low blitz numbers tell the story

The Steelers only blitzed Tom Brady once in a 27-16 loss to the Patriots. Jason Bridge/USA Today Sports

PITTSBURGH -- A traditional Pittsburgh Steelers defense is synonymous with pressuring a quarterback, which makes the 2016 numbers so staggeringly un-Blitzburgh.

The Steelers blitzed Tom Brady once (3.4 percent of his dropbacks) during Sunday's 27-16 Patriots win, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the lowest the department has recorded for an NFL team in its dataset in 2016. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons appeared ready to blitz on at least two occasions, but either way, Brady saw more than four pass-rushers less than 10 percent of the time.

In the last two games, the Steelers have blitzed a total of seven times, or 12 percent of dropbacks, with Brady and Miami's Ryan Tannehill completing 6-of-7 passes for 101 yards on those blitzes. On the year, the Steelers are blitzing at a 20-percent clip. A pass rush of five or more players constitutes a blitz in a 3-4 defense, according to ESPN Stats and Info. That doesn't account for, say, three defensive linemen and a cornerback, but it's enough of a baseline to track a drastic trend.

Considering the Steelers' history the last decade, this feels like a philosophical shift for the defense. The Steelers blitzed on at least 30 percent of opposing quarterback's dropbacks in every previous season since 2006, including 35 percent or higher in six of the last seven years.

The lack of pressure helps explain the team's league-low eight sacks through seven games, a shocking drop for a team that recorded 48 sacks a year ago, good enough for third in the league.

The Steelers can point to Brady's modest 222 passing yards as a reasonable trade-off. More players in coverage kept the game manageable -- a win for situational football.

But strategy won't matter much with a recipe of no sacks and nearly seven rushing yards allowed per carry. Over back-to-back weeks, Miami's Jay Ajayi and New England's LeGarrette Blount barreled through Pittsburgh's usually stout run defense at 6.75 yards per attempt on 49 tries.

Players seem to think better rushing defense will lead to more blitz chances.

"We're not in a lot of good situations to do it," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "usually we try to save our blitzes for later in the game, but when they are having so much success running the ball, you're not going to blitz as much. Then, you are really going to bleed yourself and they might just pop it out. "

Added defensive end Stephon Tuitt: "Second-and-eight compared to second-nad-four, that makes it a lot easier to open the defensive playbook against those guys."

Heyward and outside linebacker Bud Dupree are missed. Opponents were averaging around four yards per carry in the five games Heyward played before a hamstring injury. Dupree, who is on injured reserve, would give the Steelers an extra pass rusher with a first-round pedigree. He's hoping to start practicing in Week 10.

Tuitt and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones have penetrated the backfield and pressured the quarterback on occasion but have combined for zero sacks. Injuries have forced L.T. Walton and Ricardo Mathews into significant roles up front.

Jones laments the Steelers simply "haven't been that defense" fans have come to expect.

"We still have to make plays, regardless," Jones said. "We knew they were going to run the ball, we knew they were going to throw the ball and get chunk (plays). It was our job to stop it."

The Steelers have a bye week to correct what ails them. But it's hardly a guarantee the Steelers can apply quarterback pressure with four rushers. At least a return to run-stopping might provide more blitzing options on third down.